Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Exploring Along an Old Highway

This past Tuesday meant another monthly meeting of the Northwest Kansas Travel Council, this time being held at the High Plains RV Grounds located five miles north of Oakley, Kansas. The meeting went well, greatly helped by a lunch served only of Kansas-produced products, and so by 1:30PM I was ready to take on the nearly 3-hour drive back to Osborne. I had the entire sunny Kansas afternoon in which to do so, which meant a chance at some real Kansas Exploring!

But first I stopped in the Oakley Cemetery and paid my respects at the grave of my aunt Rae, a longtime schoolteacher who passed on all too soon. At six feet tall and nearly 300 pounds, Aunt Rae was one of the jolliest people you ever would have met.

And then it was off into the Wild Kansas Blue Yonder. A short drive five miles east of Oakley on Interstate 70 led me to the exit for the extinct town of Campus, now the site of a modern ethanol plant. Heading on north I ate up a number miles Exploring where a wide and excellent Thomas County sand road took me.

The vast stretches of Western Kansas plains soon gave way to huge irrigated fields of corn, and then the road took on an interesting twist - it became the line between Thomas County on the left and Sheridan County on the right. That imaginary colored border on the Kansas map had just become a reality in life. How often does something remarkable happen in our lives and we rarely even notice its taking place?

Yes, this sign means that I finally rediscovered civilization, or in this case the tiny community of Menlo, just inside of Thomas County.

Though once larger, today's Menlo holds a population of under 100 townfolk, who do strive to keep the community relatively clean and wellkept. During Menlo's prime the paved street above was the main highway hereabouts; US Highway 24 today runs several miles to the north.

Downtown Menlo, a far cry from earlier times when both sides of the street teamed with businesses.

Looking for a nice home? This excellent log cabin-style Menlo ranch home with a two-door garage is currently for sale!

Getting a rare chance at some new dirt to dare do, I eventually headed east out of Menlo on the old highway, passing into Sheridan County. Though now covered with sand, the old asphalt still can be seen beneath.

A few miles east I came upon Kansas Highway 188. Turning south on it for about a mile I entered the community of Seguin. Even tinier than Menlo, Seguin bore up well the Kansas Explorer mantra that every community, large and small, still there or extinct, has something new and interesting to share with those who bother to look.

In Seguin I unexpectedly encountered the beautiful adobe-style St. Martins Catholic Church. Take time to stop and see this wonder, if your ever out that way; the stain glass windows alone are worth the trouble.

Tucked away in the northeast corner of Sequin lies a cemetery like no other in Northwest Kansas. St. Martin Cemetery is completely unlike any you might expect on the High Plains. Tightly enclosed by elderly cedars, the grounds abound with soaring pines and spruce and dotted here and there with ornate headstones, and even holds a unique handcrafted walk-in gate. This cemetery is a must-see for every Explorer to walk and enjoy, and take a moment to reflect.

Tearing myself away I once more headed north a mile and back east onto the wonderful old highway/sand road, actually passing three or four shocked farmers in the many miles before the road entered the city of Hoxie, Kansas.

There I stopped at Mickey's Museum, one of the great homespun preservers of Kansas history in the state, and renewed acquaintances with the staff. An hour passed and then I returned to the paved US Highway 24 and zoomed east toward Osborne.

Passing through Hill City I came to the intersection where US-24 and Kansas Highway 18 meet a mile north of the town of Bogue. On impulse I turned left onto what was US-24 during the early mid-20th Century and so took this rock road some 20 miles north and then east, meeting up with the current US-24 again a few miles just outside of Stockton. "Dare to Do Dirt" today meant about fifty miles of Exploring Kansas back roads!

In Stockton the news came over my car radio that a Severe Thunderstorm Warning had just been issued for Northeast Osborne County and Southeast Smith County, with a storm dropping walnut-sized hail over the vicinity of the town of Portis. The above photo shows that storm cloud as it looked at the time from Stockton, nearly 50 miles away.

What the radio did not mention was the storms forming south of this one storm, directly east before me and trailing off to the southwest. I drove on to Woodston in eastern Rooks County, where I took the photo at left, showing the stormclouds directly in my path. I continued on and stopped at Alton, where I tarried for a while hoping that the storms would move on east. Instead they not only remained stationary but continued to build. The sky became pitch black the further east I drove.

I had almost made it to Bloomington, five miles east of Osborne, when the heavens opened up and the wind came howling out of the north, driving the rain to the point once could no longer see the highway. At Bloomington I pulled over and sat a while in the lee of the elevator, weighing my chances at continuing. Ten minutes of this waiting was enough; I knew the road ahead like the back of my hand, and decided that if I go slow I would be alright.

Lucky for me there was only a little hail with the storm. Several times the wind-driven rain completely obscured the road, making those five miles seem like hours. Only twenty minutes later I was back in Osborne, threading the flooded streets along with other fellow idiot drivers still out and about. At 6:40PM I pulled up to my home, my car now nicely scoured of all the day's Kansas road dirt. Just another typical day Exploring Kansas!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Highlights from the 2009 Alton Jubilee Parade

A warm balmy day met the prayers of those who had planned this year's annual Alton Jubilee, held on Saturday, August 22nd in the small town of Alton in Osborne County, population around 110, maybe 115. The temperature reached a perfect 82 degrees with winds of less than 10 miles an hour. This made for one of the best celebrations in recent memory. At 10:30AM the crowd was seated and anticipating the annual parade, traditionally always the best in the area.

This year's parade theme was "Generations to Generations," and several floats reflected this theme with four and - even five generations - of family members aboard!

The Boland Body Shop was proud to note that it was "Open to ALL Generations!"

The Stockbridge-Carswell families float featured photos of the family farm through the years, from 1943 to the present day.

The Sharpe Memorial Clinic of Osborne used a patriotic theme.

John McClure of Blue Hill Bikes in Osborne reminded everyone that the weather was perfect for such activities.

An annual tradition is for the Osborne High School cheerleaders to ride on the fire truck.
The Bull City Opry enjoyed promoting their melodrama to be portrayed later that evening - "The Cowboys & Mrs. Hoodwinkler."

After the parade it was time for the hungry crowd to find something to eat. Inside Hardman Hall the annual homemade ice cream & pie feast proved once again to be a true feast for the eyes. Getting past this table of slices of pie proved to be very difficult for most. And then they were stumped with the choice between five different kinds of ice cream!

A shot of just part of the long line of hungry visitors awaiting their turn at the traditional hamburger feed fundraiser for the Alton Fire Department. As usual, no one complained at the wait but seized the time to talk and catch up on the world with their neighbors.

There were two author book signings going on in the afternoon. Here Kelli LaRosh signs yet another copy of her popular childrens book, "What's Math Got To Do With Farming?" published by Ad Astra Publishing LLC of Osborne, Kansas.

That evening the annual barbecue proved so popular that a crowd of over 400 caused the food to run out. Even the melodrama - a "Bring Your Own Lawn Chair" event held on the city park tennis court - attracted a record crowd. Be sure to mark your calendar and attend next year's Jubilee!

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Domestic Tale

I never will be accused as having a "green" thumb. If anything, I will eternally accused of "not watering your plants enough again, huh?." But many who know me reluctantly admit (some very reluctantly) that I can do one thing right - I apparently can do wonders with a dumb cane.

Dumb canes originated in Brazil and for the past 150 years or so have been a popular house plant - as long as you keep pets and children away from them, as the juice of the dumb came is rather poisonous and is not something you would want to ingest. But give them a little plant food periodically and a lot of water often and they generally take care of themselves.

Family memories place my mother acquiring a dumb cane plant somewhere around 1967 or 1968 or thereabouts, and the plant remained a fixture in her living room for nearly 35 years. In 2001 I inherited the plant and to my enduring astonishment managed to keep it alive all this time. Then this past week something occurred that had not happened in the past 40 years: the dumb cane flowered!

Asking around, this turns out by everyone I know to be an unheard-of event. Checking the Internet simply showed photos of flowers everywhere with the implication that this happens all the time. At any rate, it took a day for the flower to fully open, as the above photo shows. It then slowly closed over the next day-and-a-half, but not before a SECOND flower started growing!

It took the second flower two days after the first to mature and open, and then presenting me with a second surprise: in the twilight of the evening the flower suddenly emitted an odor that would make a skunk proud. It turns out that the dumb cane really is a distant cousin of the skunk cabbage. It was easy to believe that the plant was releasing 40 years of pent-up scent. The stench was so intense that I quickly became nauseous and ended up banning the plant to the back porch, where it continued to emit its offensive odor the rest of the night. Evidently I inhaled too much as it took another day for the sick feeling to finally pass altogether.

Two sources on the Internet suggest that after flowering a dumb cane plant will die. I hope not, but after getting a potent whiff of this plant, I frankly won't be surprised.

I took the second photo above of the second flower just before the flower released its intoxicating/toxic pheromone. In the photo you can see at left the first flower curled up tight. At the right is the open second flower. What is between the two is my new concern. Yes, it appears that a THIRD flower is growing. What surprises does it have in store? I checked - not even the Internet knows.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Three Stories of Race, Age, and Politics

Traveling along U.S. Highway 24 in western Osborne County, Kansas, one normally continues unawares west down the highway and then enter Rooks County. That's fine, as there is a lot to see and do in our fellow county to the west. But in doing so, you'd be missing out on Exploring a relatively small area along the western edge of Osborne County that is chockful of great little stories, all which add to the overall understanding of Kansas history and culture and thus are well worth the retelling.

Travel four miles west of the city of Alton on U.S. Highway 24 in Osborne County one can spy a quarter mile south of the highway another one of those great rural cemeteries that dot the county - the Pleasant Valley Cemetery.
Back in the 1980s the money and materials were gathered to go through the cemetery and use temporary markers and a little concrete to mark several burials that otherwise would now be long forgotten. The simple words on the marker above never fail to grab a visitor's attention. Negro Hattie [died] 1904. One cannot help but wonder, who was this person? How did she come to be here?

A couple of questions here and there locally and the few barebones left of the tale of Hattie come forth. Born a slave, after the Civil War Hattie worked as a servant for white families. She came to Kansas and Osborne County in the early 1870s and worked locally for the Strange and Deering families until her death on March 5, 1904, unsure of her exact age but still remembered over a century later as having a great laugh and for being full of life. Not a bad epitaph in the end.
In walking through the Pleasant Valley Cemetery the above stone seems not much different from many other tombstones of the era seen there - aged, broken, and slowly disappearing into the ground. But closer inspection of when Naomi passed away brings up a surprising fact: when she died was 87 years old, which means that she was born in the 1790s.

Now, further east of Osborne County it no doubt becomes commonplace to find the final resting place of someone from the 1790s. But in this county, the number of such graves can be counted on one hand. Add to that the even more astonishing fact that 79 year-old Naomi claimed a homestead when she arrived in the Pleasant Valley neighborhood. Stop and think on this. How many 79ers you know today would have the ability, courage, and sheer energy to set about creating a farm from scratch?

Her life story is no less courageous. Naomi Sly was born April 9, 1792 in Vermont. At the age of seven she moved with her parents to Ontario Province in Canada. In 1811 the 19 year-old Naomi married Archelaus Farnam, subsequently becoming the mother of seven children. When the youngest child was three years old the husband died, leaving Naomi alone to support her family. She did so by working in turn as a miller, a seamstress, and a weaver. All seven of her children reached adulthood.

In 1867 Naomi and her son Jonathan sold their property and moved his family to Nebraska. In 1871 they moved on to Osborne County, where Naomi and Jonathan took out adjoining homesteads. The next year Jonathan died, leaving his widow and Naomi to develop the two homesteads and raise the eight Farnam children. In 1873 Naomi sold her land for one thousand dollars, an enormous sum in those days, and so helped the Farnam family establish a long term presence in the area. She passed away in 1880 at the respected age of - as her tombstone states in the manner of the time - 87 Ys, 9 Ms, & 18 Ds.
Two miles northwest of the Pleasant Valley Cemetery can still be found a stone farmhouse that belies its importance. For this was originally the home of Russell Scott Osborn, who had a hand in one of the more wild and wooly moments in Kansas history: the Legislative War of 1893.

Osborn was a Civil War veteran who after the war was ordained a Congregationalist minister. He homesteaded here in 1872 and organized a number of Congregational churches in the region. Osborn was also a stonemason and built many of the stone buildings in the area, including his own impressive 1873 house.

He was also busy as a spokeman for farm politics, and attained such statewide respect that he was elected Kansas Secretary of State in November 1892 on the Populist Party ticket. As Secretary one of Osborn's many duties was to formally read the roll for the Kansas House of Representatives at the start of the legislative session in January 1893. In this manner the various representatives officially took their seats. As the Republican Party held the majority of seats, Osborn refused to read the roll, thus allowing the Populists to claim majority, as some election results were still being contested.

With no one formally in charge, the House was in an uproar. Both parties elected a Speaker of the House and tried to conduct business. On the morning of February 15, 1893, the Republicans tried to get back into the House chamber, but were denied entrance by the Populists, who had barred the doors and insisted that they were now the legal representatives. The Republicans used a sledgehammer to smash open the chamber doors and evicted the Populists by force. The governor called out National Guard troops to restore order, and eventually the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Republican Party. In time Peace and new chamber doors reigned at last once more over the House chamber.
Osborn served out his two-year term and then stepped down from public office. In 1898 he returned to his farm in western Osborne County, then moved to Stockton, Kansas in 1904. Osborn died there in 1912 and was buried next to his wife in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery.

A biography of Osborn using his own diaries and other writings is due for publication by Ad Astra Publishing in the spring of 2010. It is sure to provide new insights into this unique and fascinating event in Kansas history.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Two Towns and a Tree

This past Tuesday, August 11, 2009, I attended a meeting at Inman, Kansas at the Kansas Sampler Foundation headquarters. The meeting was over fairly early and I was left facing most of an afternoon and evening in which to Explore the backroads of Kansas on my back home ot Osborne.

I took county roads from Inman north, then west, then south, and again west and ended up in the town of Alden, Kansas, population larger than I thought. This is one of those great little Kansas towns not located on any highway, and one I had not been back to in 29 years, when I helped make deliveries to the local cafe.

The downtown was quiet when I traveled through, but still as neat and clean as the rest of the community.

When you arrive a littler earlier in the afternoon chances are that you can stop at Alden's 1872 Depot Museum, a fine building displaying the pride this community still has in itself.

I then traveled west and north on a great county road that had stretches of wide open spaces interspersed with winding tree-lined curves. A classic Kansas Back Road!

Within a few miles I arrived at my destination - the community of Raymond, even smaller than Alden but still as neat and clean. This is a town that I had never been to before but had heard about all my life, as an aunt & uncle of mine farmed in the area for years. Driving the downtown area today one can still discover small town gems such as the Fire Department, seen above.

At the south end of the downtown area sits the former location of the Raymond State Bank. The building is still in excellent condition and is in the architectural style reminiscent of many bank buildings across the state.

Raymond was founded in 1871 and today has a population of under 100. The Raymond Post Office continues to serve the area.

A great hidden Explorer gem is the Raymond Elementary School, unique in its architectural style for a small-town school. Note the center tower-like structure!

From Raymond it was again cross-country for many miles on county roads until I made it to Wilson and the Made From Scratch Cafe. Had the homemade chicken fried steak dinner, with a tall piece of lemon pie. After waddling back out the car I headed north over the Post Rock Scenic Byway past Wilson Lake to Lucas, where having a little time to kill I decided to pull into the alley behind the Garden of Eden and up to the Chair-e Tree.

For those not in the know, the Chair-e Tree is just that - if you have an old chair and wish to contribute to great art, bring it here and artist/entrepenuer/thought-producer/ homeowner Erika Nelson will set it up and inside the large elm tree in her backyard.
Just prior to Tuesday Lucas had a major storm and the Chair-e Tree had substained some damage - or rather the chairs in it, judging from the litter now on the ground.
A wonderful Explorer swap you can now see on the Chair-e Tree: near the town of Wetmore in Northeast Kansas stands the Kissel Shoe Tree, where people are encouraged to nail their old pair of shoes and leave a message on them. On the Chair-e Tree I spied this pair of shoes, left by the Shoe Tree folks! Only in Kansas.